Big money soon flowed. In July, Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority announced a $650 million investment to develop local athletes and teams and to attract international events. At an investment conference in Riyadh in October, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, the chairman of the General Sports Authority, explained how making Saudi Arabia a hub of global sports could lift economic growth and create thousands of jobs.
“A big part of the change within the kingdom is the sector of sport and growing the sector of sport,” he said.
Wrestling is one sliver of Saudi Arabia’s new appetite for athletics.
This month, Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. will travel to a custom-built arena in Diriyah, outside Riyadh, for a heavyweight boxing title fight billed as the “Clash on the Dunes.” February brings the debut of the Saudi Cup, a horse race with a $20 million purse — the richest in history. A Ladies European Tour golf tournament is being planned for March.
“We are in a really huge transformation, softening the image,” Majed al-Sorour, chief executive of the Saudi Golf Federation, said on the sidelines of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh in October.
Boundaries broaden, but only so far.
The sports expansion is part of Prince Mohammed’s attempt to bring in foreign investment and increase the financial potential of a country whose population skews young. Of the kingdom’s 22 million citizens, about two-thirds are under 30.
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law. After Prince Mohammed was elevated to crown prince in 2017, he pursued a campaign aimed at convincing the world that Saudi Arabia was changing culturally, with a series of reforms that were methodically rolled out to burnish its image. In the last 18 months, movie theaters opened for the first time in more than 35 years, women gained the right to drive and segregation of the sexes was relaxed in public places.
On a Monday night in late October, Saudi men and women in their 20s swayed to hip-hop music at a fashion boutique that opened for Riyadh’s Design Week. Like international companies, young people in Saudi Arabia are adjusting to new boundaries and calibrating their ambitions.